Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August Book Club: Seven Daughters of Eve

Seven Daughters of EveMy book club has dabbled its toes in some nonfiction lately, mostly with pleasant results. Bryan Sykes's The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry is an account of the development of mitochondrial DNA analysis as a tool to trace the ancestral histories of humans. Since mitochondria DNA only passes along the maternal line, it is simpler to follow and less prone to transformation. Instead of an exponentially branching family tree, it traces a single line back from the many to the one.

Sykes shows how this gene helped determine relatives of the ice age man found frozen in Switzerland, the truth about claimants to the Russian throne, the path of Polynesians across the oceans (he was involved in many of these cases). He then looks farther back to prehistoric times, to the seven women almost all Europeans descend from, and imagines what their lives were like and who they were. His tone is conversational, even when explaining the science behind the gene, and he's just as interested in the politics behind labs scrambling for credit as he is in the experiments driving the discoveries. It was interesting to read about some of the protocols, especially regarding children, which just seemed so different from how I think science works in America (Sykes is English). Also, his glee in an invitation to a castle to sip wine with a lord checking on his connection to a cave man amused me.

The women in the club mostly enjoyed the book, and we talked about how Sykes approached the material and presented it to the public; we pushed at some of the hints he dropped and then jokingly compared some of the more whimsical "biographies" of the prehistoric women to the last Clan of the Cave Bear book that recently came out. It was a fun evening.

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